How to bring employees back to work after COVID-19 lockdown

Follow these health & safety guidelines to keep your workforce safe and productive

First published on Tuesday, Jun 16, 2020

Last updated on Thursday, Jun 10, 2021

Now that the UK government is easing lockdown measures in the coronavirus pandemic, your business can start to bring staff back to work.

You may have been operating on a limited basis over the last few months anyway. Or this may be your big reopening.

Either way, you have to ensure a safe return to work after the COVID-19 lockdown. And we have a coronavirus business resource hub packed full of essential information to help you there.

We also have a back to work navigator tool you can use to get back up to speed as soon as possible.

Plus, there’s this guide—below, we take a look into the various steps you need to think about before you get up and running again.

What you need to consider

Obviously, this’ll prove a complex process for your business—you must consider a lot going forward. So, here’s a basic summary:

  • Preparing your business for a return to wider operating. It’ll be a bit different for you depending on the following:
    • If there hasn’t been any trading.
    • You’re trading, but on a limited basis.
    • You’re operating more or less as normal, but employees are remote working.
  • Taking staff members off furlough.
  • Preparing remote workers for their return.
  • Maintaining the ability to work for those still in operation.
  • Increasing your health & safety procedures.

It’s a challenge, but you should look to return your employees into a safe and productive environment.

Unfortunately, with coronavirus that means a lot of restrictions and physical limitations you have to consider.

But with the right approach, and health & safety precautions, you can get up and running safely in no time.

How to ensure safe working at work

Okay, the UK government has a set of guidelines to help—you may have heard about COVID-19 Secure, for instance.

Basically, there are five steps to working safely guidelines you can follow.

You can use these to help you return to work after the coronavirus lockdown:

1. Complete a health & safety risk assessment:

You must do this before reopening and/or returning more staff. You should consult with employees and/or trade unions about your approach to this. You need to communicate the findings of your assessment to all employees—that’s a legal requirement. You’ll also need to publish your findings online—on your website. That’s a legal requirement if you have over 50 members of staff.

2. Increase hygiene procedures:

Set up a thorough cleaning procedure for your business. And you should also remind employees of their responsibilities, especially with hand washing. So, you should:

  1. Train, and remind, staff about the right cleaning procedures.
  2. Provide plenty of hand sanitiser around your business.
  3. Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces around your business—especially those staff regularly touch.
  4. Have a system in place for clean use of toilets.
  5. Make sure you have plenty of hand drying options available, like with paper towels and hand dryers.

3. Encourage homeworking:

If you have employees who do work remotely, you should take “reasonable” steps to let them continue with that. So, consult with your employees about how this could work—or continue to do so.

4. Establish social distancing rules:

This is an important one. You really need to make sure employees stick to your two-metre gap guidelines. To help with that, you can:

  1. Use tape or markers across the floor to act as a guideline.
  2. Put up posters as a reminder for employees.
  3. Arrange one-way traffic systems to avoid overcrowding.
  4. Stagger start and stop times to, again, avoid overcrowding.
  5. Ban hot desking, so no one uses the same desk over a working day.
  6. Ban or manage the use of lifts.
  7. Use video conferencing software for meetings, rather than 1-1s.

5. Manage the social distancing rule:

If your business can’t operate around the two-metre gap rule, you can manage the situation. That’ll help limit transmission risks. So, you can keep in mind the following:

  1. Think about if certain roles need completing—if not, let the employee take time off.
  2. Make the activity time-intensive to avoid overdoing it.
  3. Put up screens or barriers to protect staff.
  4. Stagger start and finish times.
  5. Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) where necessary.

So, five important steps. Each one with complexities in their own right. But, with careful management you can monitor the situation and react as and when you need to.

Returning employees and reopening your business now is a reactive process. You should look to make changes rapidly if you need to, if it’s business dependent.

Or if there are new guidelines from the UK government.

How to bring back employees working from home

For many businesses, the coronavirus pandemic is a major exercise in testing out homeworking capabilities.

However, you’ll still likely want most employees to take up their role normally once they can.

At present, in June 2020, government guidelines are to allow staff who can work remotely to continue doing so.

However, this’ll possibly relax over the coming months. And that’ll allow you to return employees from remote working.

If that’s the case, you can follow these steps to make the process run smoothly:

  • Communicate with them that they’re not returning to work in normal conditions, they’ll have health & safety procedures to follow. So, provide training on coronavirus awareness.
  • Agree with them on a day to return to work.
  • Agree with them a start and finish time, if you’re offering a new flexible working arrangement.

Remember, at this time you only need to return the employees you need. Managers and directors will, naturally, stop homeworking before executives.

Either way, you should make it clear what your new business rules are (social distancing, hand washing etc.) so that you limit the risk of infection.

It’s a team effort, going forward, but the first step is to communicate changes to your employees. And stagger their return into manageable amounts.

How to bring back employees from furlough

You might be struggling to work out how to do this. Many other businesses are in the same situation, so don’t worry.

The current Job Retention Scheme will end on 30th June 2020—although will function on a more limited front until October 2020.

However, it’s time for your business to consider what to do next. So, how do you end furlough for employees?

It’s pretty straightforward. You should have a written agreement with staff on furlough—this’ll outline the amount of notice you need to provide them.

So, you can act on that notice and inform your member of staff you’d like them to return. They then will.

How they do so is up to you. For example:

  • If they can do their job at home, you should let them work remotely.
  • If they can return to your business premises, you should take the appropriate steps for them to come back.

From your side, you may not need to return all employees from furlough. So, consider each individual on a case by case basis. You may need to:

  • Offer (and agree) on a reduction in working hours.
  • Using short-time working.
  • Using a lay-off clause.
  • Furloughing staff again—at your expense.
  • Making redundancies (this is a last resort for any business).

We have a furlough navigator tool you can use to keep track of your employees—and ensure their timely return.

Even now, you may find it useful to sign up, enter staffing details, and manage it from there. It’s really easy to use and makes it much easier for you to manage.

Returning vulnerable staff to work

You’ve likely heard about underlying health conditions, and those in vulnerable groups (BAME), and how coronavirus affects certain people.

So, it’s important to remember your duty of care when thinking about bringing vulnerable and pregnant employees back to work. High and moderate risk members of staff include those with:

  • Diabetes.
  • Heart conditions.
  • Neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.
  • If they’re over the age of 70.
  • BAME.

You must consider their welfare at this time and take the right steps to maintain their safety at your business. How do you do that? Well, the UK government advice is to continue “shielding” them.

Well, they should stay at home. They can work remotely if their role lets them.

These guidelines will run until the end of June 2020, but there’s every chance an extension will happen.

So, it’ll more than likely breach your duty of care to employees if you expect vulnerable staff members to return at this time.

If the employee has a disability, it could even create a discrimination claim under the Equality Act 2010.

For now, you should consider leaving them on furlough—or statutory sick pay. But if they can work remotely, you should consider this option as well.

At a later date, when government guidelines begin to ease on “shielding”, you’ll need to take extra precautions to ensure employees are safe.

That’s for when you return them to your business. You may want to consider homeworking on a long-term basis. Otherwise, you can take steps such as:

  • Providing vulnerable employees with private workstations.
  • Offering additional PPE to limit the risk of infection.
  • Offering flexible working hours so they can avoid periods of overcrowding.

What if staff complain?

You must listen to any employee concerns when they’re returning to work after coronavirus.

In fact, you can expect that dealing with employee concerns related to returning to work safety will be quite a common occurrence.

Anxiety and depression rates are currently high after lockdown, so some may not want to return at all.

Others may want to agree more flexible working arrangements with you, such as remote working days so they don’t have to commute.

You could take disciplinary action against employees who refuse to return. But it’s good business practice to manage things carefully.

Or, you may come across employees with no childcare refusing to come to work— “What can I do?” Well, it’s important to communicate with the individual and discuss their issues—you can possibly reach a quick understanding.

Check their contract of employment to see if you can offer unpaid or parental leave. But you may want to offer support during this time, instead of criticism.

Ultimately, this is an unprecedented situation and many professionals are suffering from stress. So, a negative reaction towards them could backfire for your business.

The best steps you can take are to limit concerns. You should follow the UK government’s health & safety guidelines and make your workplace COVID-19 secure.

This can help to reassure staff you’re doing everything you can to keep them safe. And that may reduce the opportunity for complaints.

Coronavirus-related contract changes

So, throughout all of this do you need to think about changing a staff member’s contract? Possibly, if you’re turning to changes such as short-time working.

To make any employment contract change, you have to:

  • Have a flexibility clause in their contract to let you do so.
  • Get an agreement with an employee to make a change.

But you still might ask, “Do I need to make changes to employment terms in relation to coronavirus related policies?” This isn’t likely unless, again, you’re reducing an employee’s hours or laying them off.

For health & safety policies, such as your guidelines relating to social distancing, employees have a responsibility to uphold the business’ instructions.

So, no contract changes are necessary.

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